In an effort to capitalize on the international outrage over Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent call to “wipe Israel off the map,” Israel and several American Jewish organizations have launched a coordinated attack to isolate Iran and force Tehran to renounce its nuclear ambitions.
Several Israeli officials and Jewish organizational leaders called for Iran to be booted from the United Nations, and Jerusalem is pressuring U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to postpone a visit to Tehran scheduled for mid-November. But diplomats and experts said the calls to remove Iran from the international body are unrealistic and mostly for public consumption.
More significant, some observers said, is the effort by pro-Israel forces to use Ahmadinejad’s outburst as a rationale to convince members of the International Atomic Energy Agency to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council for possible sanctions. The 35-member governing board of the atomic agency is set to take up the issue later this month.
Israeli officials and Jewish organizations are hoping that Ahmadinejad’s recent declarations will convince countries — including Russian and several European nations — that the time has come for a crackdown on Tehran and its nuclear activities.
France, Germany and Britain have been negotiating with Iran for two years in an effort to convince Tehran to abandon its nuclear program. The talks broke off a few months ago after Iran rejected an offer of economic and political incentives, and restarted uranium enrichment activities that it had agreed to suspend. In the meantime, two key Iranian negotiators resigned and Ahmadinejad replaced them with hardliners, fueling European pessimism about a positive outcome.
The latest development is likely to further the growing feeling among Western diplomats that a referral to the U.N. Security Council is inevitable if Iran does not change its behavior, observers said.
This is a wake-up call to anyone who assumed Iran was sincere in its nuclear negotiation,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official in the Bush administration. Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based think tank that vigorously backed the Iraq War. “The question now is whether the U.S. and the E.U. will pressure Russia.”
Russia, which has been providing nuclear technology to Iran and holds a key vote at the U.N., has opposed a referral. However, Iran’s recent behavior and Russia’s hopes of holding a successful G-8 summit in Moscow next summer could help sway Russian President Vladimir Putin to turn against Tehran, according to Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The institute is a think tank supported by many pro-Israel donors.
Last week, Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, was in Moscow to discuss the Iran situation. And Clawson said that Russian officials have started issuing statements more in line with Western positions.
The recent controversy erupted last week when Ahmadinejad, the surprise winner of the presidential election in August, used a speech at an anti-Zionist conference in Tehran to claim that Israel should be “wiped off the map.” He also declared that a new wave of Palestinian terror would destroy the Jewish state.
The speech was delivered on the same day that the Iranian-backed Palestinian terrorist organization Islamic Jihad took responsibility for a suicide bombing in Israel that killed five. The Islamic group stated that it was retaliating against Israel’s slaying of a Jihad leader a few days earlier. In his speech at the anti-Israel conference, titled “a world without Zionism,” the hardline Iranian president also warned that after “a short period… the process of the elimination of the Zionist regime will be smooth and simple” — an allegation that some commentators saw as an oblique reference to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Ahmadinejad warned during the speech that Islamic leaders who recognize “Israel will burn in the fire of the Islamic nation’s fury.”
His statement won stiff condemnations from American and European leaders. The U.N. Security Council adopted a statement criticizing him. No Muslim official condemned him except Saeb Erekat, an official in the Palestinian Authority.
Israel and Jewish organizations took an “I told you so” attitude, arguing that far from an outburst, Ahmadinejad’s words reflected long-standing Iranian policy. They cited previous calls for Israel’s destruction from Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and from former president Hashemi Rafsanjani, as well as from the late leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
However, some observers noted that Ahmadinejad’s presidential predecessor for the past eight years, Mohamed Khatami, had conspicuously avoided such inflammatory rhetoric.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom was careful to avoid casting the issue as a confrontation between Tehran and Jerusalem. On Tuesday, he told reporters that Iran’s nuclear ambitions threatened the entire region and even Europe.
Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Dan Gillerman, wrote Annan on October 27 to argue that a country advocating the destruction of another member state of the U.N. could not be allowed to remain in the world body. In what appeared to be a coordinated move, nearly all of the influential American Jewish organizations then fired off statements demanding the removal of Iran from the U.N.
No country ever has been removed from the world body, although South Africa had its membership suspended during its apartheid regime. Most observers agreed that no Iranian statement, however inflammatory, would prompt such a drastic decision. Two aides to the U.N. secretary-general said on Tuesday that no decision had been reached on Annan’s scheduled visit to Iran.
Ahmadinejad reiterated his position the day after the anti-Israel conference. But by Sunday, October 30, he appeared to backpedal, saying that it was up to Palestinians and Israelis to reach a peace deal. His apparent retreat came after several Iranian leaders, including Khamenei and Rafsanjani, sought to nuance Ahmadinejad’s pronouncements.
The backpedaling was a clear indication of the realization by Iran’s leadership that Ahmadinejad’s statements were hurting Tehran’s international standing, according to Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert with the Congressional Research Service. “The leadership realized they hurt themselves in advance of the [atomic agency] meeting and that it has increased the U.S. leverage to have a vote referring Iran to the Security Council,” he said.
A similar string of events occurred after a fiery speech by Ahmadinejad at the U.N. General Assembly in September helped the Bush administration garner more votes against Iran at an ensuing meeting of the atomic agency.
Most observers agree that Ahmadinejad’s recent flap stemmed from a combination of genuine Islamic revolutionary verve, a failure to grasp the demands of his function and an eagerness to bolster his position in the Byzantine world of Iranian politics.
“He is a real ideologue; he is speaking to a domestic audience, and he just doesn’t understand his job,” Clawson said in explaining the reasons behind the return to the heated rhetoric of the Islamic Revolution’s heyday in the early 1980s.
In addition, Ahmadinejad is facing serious opposition in Iran. The parliament rejected four ministers proposed by the president in recent weeks, and the academic world has been in turmoil because of his efforts to appoint hardline supervisors. Over the past two weeks, Ahmadinejad also has recalled 17 ambassadors, including the ones posted in the three European countries negotiating with Iran over nuclear issues. He also recalled Tehran’s representative to the U.N., Mohammad Javad Zarif, who served as a conduit to American officials. In addition, the president ordered Iranian diplomats to step up their complaints about the treatment of the Palestinians, according to Clawson.